STEPHANIE FRANKS, president of MarKomm Consulting, a Denver-based eventand production company, is the mind behind ConferZone, a year-and-a-half-old Web site that bills itself as “the first objective e-conferencing resource.” With its vendor database, daily e-conferencing news service, and white papers, among other content, the site has cultivated a following that logs about 20,000 page views per month. And its monthly ConferZine e-newsletter has close to 6,000 subscribers. Franks has personally produced about 150 virtual events since her first just three years ago and has consulted on many more. We spoke with her recently about ConferZone and the changing world of e-conferencing.
What was the impetus behind the ConferZone Web site?
I had a very difficult time finding information about vendors, and making apples to apples comparisons on features, functions, and pricing. I thought there was a niche for something where people could learn more about this industry, how to do the events, and who the players are.
What are the most frequent mistakes companies make in their e-conferencing strategy?
It's the same across traditional and virtual events: not setting objectives. A lot of people go out looking at vendors, getting demonstrations, before they really know what they want to accomplish with their event. Your objective has an effect on the vendor; it has an effect on the way the agenda for the event goes, who the speakers are going to be — everything. Other mistakes I see are a lack of education and a lack of planning. A lot of people just dive in and think all we have to do is find a vendor and get some speakers. E-conferences are as difficult to plan as a regular seminar as far as all the details.
What technological developments do you expect to have the biggest impact on the e-conferencing business?
Besides greater availability of high-bandwidth connections, which will make the biggest impact on e-conferencing, I see changes with the adoption of voice-over IP [Internet protocol] technology, which allows users to get audio through the computer.
What makes a good virtual event?
The best events are interesting, educational, and unbiased. The events that get the fewest attendees are those that come off as sales pitches. You need to come up with an educational topic about your industry to really get people there. Also, make it as interactive as possible. Don't have just one. Try to have a panel and a moderator, bring in customers, bring in testimonial case studies. Push the speakers to interact. People have lost so much without the visuals — not being able to look up on stage — that you have to compensate.
Other advice for the novice e-conference organizer?
You cannot overcommunicate. The speakers feel a little unsteady because they are going to be dialing in from their office and there are going to be other speakers dialing in, and they're often not sure how it's all going to work. Also, they may feel uncomfortable with the technology. And then, consider your audience. They get very antsy if it's a week before the event and they haven't received confirmation information. With a traditional event they know they can just go to the hotel and figure it out when they get there. With an e-conference, it's important to send reminder notes, updates, just really communicate with people to make them comfortable.
What keeps users coming back to www.conferzone.com? According to ConferZone founder Stephanie Franks, the biggest draw is the site's vendor database. The listings include about 500 e-conferencing suppliers in six categories — videoconferencing, Web conferencing, audio conferencing, collaborative conferencing, infrastructure, and consulting/training. Franks says that the ConferZone staff adds about 15 to 20 vendors each week to the database, helping users keep up-to-date with a fast-moving vendor market. “This industry is all about blurring lines and disappearing acts. People are leaving. Companies are going out of business, changing their names, being acquired,” Franks says.
The site also offers a daily news wire, a glossary of e-conferencing terms, archives of the monthly newsletter, a file of frequently asked questions, and a library of white papers.